Georgia’s June crisis
Tensions remain high in Tbilisi after Russian lawmaker Sergey Gavrilov occupied the chair of the speaker of the Georgian parliament last month.
On July 20th, it will be almost one month since Georgia experienced one of the deepest and longest open political crises over the decade. Insulted by Russian deputy Sergey Gavrilov’s behavior during the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy when he occupied the chairman’s seat in the parliament of Georgia, some part of local society, in cooperation with political opposition, took to the streets to call for the government to bear responsibility, protest against occupation and remind the western partners that 20 per cent of the country is still under the control of the Kremlin. The initially peaceful protest turned violent and ended with massive clashes between protesters and riot police. Hundreds were injured, including security officers, while some lost their eyesight. As a result, the government was forced to fire the chairman of the parliament, introduce a proportional electoral system and free everyone detained during the unrest. At the same time, a small group of protesters are still demanding the resignation of the head of the ministry of internal affairs, Giorgi Gakharia. On July 7th, Georgian society experienced further frustration after Rustavi 2 TV journalist Giorgi Gabunia, on his show P.S., verbally insulted the President of Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin.
This initially provoked universal public outrage, which raised fears that the Kremlin could have initiated additional economic sanctions. Fortunately, Georgia and Russia managed to avoid further escalation of interstate relations. This incident is important for two reasons. Firstly, Rustavi 2 is one of Georgia’s leading TV channels that is capable of shaping and forming public attitudes. Secondly, this channel represents itself as a highly pro-western (and thus, anti-Russian) media agency that strongly supports the parliamentary opposition and June protests. So far, Gabunia’s absolutely provocative and non-journalistic behavior stigmatises the so-called pro-western movement and strengthens the attitudes of Georgia’s larger civil society that parliamentary opposition and the protesters are politically irresponsible and untrustworthy. Furthermore, it may create the false perception that irresponsible journalism is acceptable for the west and fits into western journalistic standards.
We may easily argue that the most critical stage of the protest has passed and the ruling party managed to avoid a further escalation of the situation for now. The political protest that is present on a regular basis in the city center is slowly fading and will probably be in vain. Putting aside the emotional part of the issue, this incident reflected Georgia’s deepening political and economic crisis; furthermore, a lack of alternatives and, most importantly, unreadiness of the youth to bear respective responsibility for its actions. And it seems that this irresponsibility became widespread, which affected Georgian media too.
The “full picture”
If you go through various local and international publications, you may come to conclusion that the Georgian youth were peacefully protesting against Gavrilov’s visit and the long-lasting occupation of the Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions by the Russian Federation. But factually, these people were peacefully protesting only for a while, and the reasons were much more complex; stagnation of political will and creativity among them. The visit of the Russian Duma deputy was just a trigger that initiated processes on the ground. Georgia is stuck between the past (the parliamentary opposition) and the present (ruling party) and is probably incapable of leading the state into a better future. Debris of the post-revolutionary government, the United National Movement and European Georgia, are lost in the past with an absolutely outdated political agenda, while the ruling party is seemingly unwilling to handle the significant issues that trouble Georgian society, including the status of the judiciary. Additionally, none of these political forces have a clear vision of how to deal with the economic crisis, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges. The status-quo pushes general Georgian society, especially the youth, to look for alternatives that are simply missing at the table. The non-existence of alternatives totally depreciates elections and leads to nihilism.
Provoked by the visit of representative of the “occupant state” and actually driven by despair, some part of Georgian society, including youth, went to the streets to unleash accumulated anger and dissatisfaction. This absolutely fair movement was acceptable for larger Georgian society until political opposition and their devoted activists decided to raise the stakes; the direct call from one of the leaders of the parliamentary opposition, Nika Melia, to “peacefully” relocate the protest into the building of the main legislative body, turned into an attempt to forcefully seize this state institution, the “heart” of Georgian statehood. Police officers and representatives of other security forces were calling on protesters to stop and attempted to prevent them from taking the building for approximately two hours. By the end of the day, Minister of Internal Affairs, Giorgi Gakharia, ordered the dispersal of the already non-peaceful and anti-constitutional protest. Unfortunately, this process was accompanied by the abuse of power and misbehavior by some members of the security forces that led to hundreds of people receiving various injuries, including the loss of eyesight. Georgian society got a new scare.
It is obvious that the government is usually guilty of both success and failure. The ruling Georgian Dream party made dramatic mistakes, including agreeing to hold the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy in the Georgian parliament and its failure to be responsive to the protesters demands and anxieties. Undoubtedly, the government failed to protect those peaceful and unarmed individuals who were attending the protest. At the same time, it has already suffered serious consequences and will feel significant impact during the upcoming parliamentary elections in 2020. But what about the actors who played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest? Should the political opposition and the protesters also bear some responsibility for the events? We may definitely argue that Georgia cannot transform into a real democratic state unless we introduce the concept of shared responsibility, meaning the government is not always the only actor to blame—every engaged actor must bear its share of responsibility for its own actions and outcomes of these activities. And here we are experiencing serious problems.
Narratives expressed by members of the parliamentary opposition and the protesters simply avoid this issue; they are trying to turn a blind eye to it as if there were no direct attacks on security officers, destruction of state property, attempts to forcefully seize parliament building and general anti-constitutional behavior. John F. Kennedy once said, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. The best thing that the protesters and especially the youth could have done for the country was to remain peaceful, but they failed. Today, the best thing they can still do is to share responsibility for June 20th with the government and parliamentary opposition. Unfortunately, neither the opposition nor the youth is ready to do so. This unreadiness for responsibility raises serious questions among larger Georgian society about whether the youth is actually prepared and can be trusted to lead the country.
By and large, Georgia suffers from a political and economic crisis that neither the ruling party nor the parliamentary opposition are probably capable of handling. There is dramatic need for new approaches and creativity through the establishment of alternative political forces and schools of thought. Unfortunately, Georgian society is simply not ready to satisfy this demand and some parts of the society, especially the youth, unleash their anger with political protests. The local parliamentary opposition and protesters are trying to represent the June 20th events as a peaceful protest that was brutally dispersed by the government. This narrative has little to do with the actual facts. Of course, the ruling party made a few significant mistakes, but both the political opposition and protesters played a significant role in escalating and provoking unrest. Thus, all sides should bear some part of the responsibility. Georgian society must realize that the responsibility for the country must be shared among all engaged actors and not only the government. Finally, this recklessness also affected the Georgian media environment. Giorgi Gabunia’s “demarché” against Vladimir Putin was, by all means, extremely damaging non-sense that sent the wrong message regarding Georgian values and journalistic standards and stigmatised political opposition and the protesters as politically irresponsible and untrustworthy actors.
Archil Sikharulidze is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at
Georgian Institute of Public Affairs and the founder of SIKHA Foundation Initiative.